Lest you slept through Astronomy 101, absolute magnitude is the measure of a star’s intrinsic brightness, in contrast to apparent magnitude, which measures a star’s brightness as seen by an earthling.

As seen by a Denverite, Star Kitchen doesn’t look like much—which is, of course, neither here nor there; decor is no more reliable a way to gauge quality than visible shine is for gauging actual luminosity, especially below a certain price point. Decor, however, isn’t quite the same thing as ambiance, which goes beyond layout & furniture & lighting & such, even beyond the visible.

And sure enough, Star Kitchen has got ambiance in abundance, at least by my standards. Consider that:

1. The 1st time I went in, I was the lone gwailo (gwaila?) of about 20 customers; the 2nd time, I was 1 of only 4 in a roomful of roughly 50. Though demographics are also not total guarantees of quality—bad taste is hardly exclusive to white America—they’re a start; without introducing the vexed notion of authenticity, we can certainly say in general that those who grew up with cuisine X are more likely to know better where to go for cuisine X and what to order there than are those raised on cuisine Y, especially when there are language obstacles to negotiate.

2. The 2nd time I was there, the TV in the corner was airing a Chinese-language soap opera, complete with wacky gumball-colored ads; the speakers were blaring a Cantonese cover of Jefferson Starship’s god-awful Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now so awesomely bad it put the original to shame; & my sake came in a makeshift bain-marie.

So far, so shiny happy. But with ambiance ultimately a matter of apparent magnitude, the only true measure of Star Kitchen’s absolute magnitude can, of course, be the food. That & the size of my belly after a couple of take-out blowouts,* itself now absolutely magnitudinous.

So, having sampled a fair number (if not a broad array**) of dishes, I can promise you that if this Hong Kongese/Cantonese joint isn’t quite a Cygnus OB2-12, it’s at least an Eta Carinae. In short, it’s pretty brilliant. (**For work purposes, I stuck mainly with dumplings & buns—& have deliberately left out a couple of my favorites here in order to profile them elsewhere later. Keep your eyes peeled.)

Lightness of touch is a hallmark of the kitchen; yeast doughs are light & fluffy, wrappers thin.

SKscallopdumplings SKshrimpdumpling

Honestly, I’m not quite clear as to whether the scallop dumplings (on the left) should be wrapped more tightly or whether this is simply a lesser-known style—though I’ve seen open, end-pinched envelopes a few times before, acquaintances in the know suggest it’s a no-no. That said, I personally don’t care, so long as they hold together, & these did; above all, they were luscious, with thick slices of sea scallop & a sprinkle of tobiko topping a mound of chopped shrimp, carrots & scallions. The shrimp dumplings, meanwhile, were little engineering wonders—note the high number of pleats & the stuffed-to-bursting plumpness.

And though char siu bao, baked or (as below) steamed, is the standard-bearer,

I actually preferred SK’s chicken filling (below left) to the barbecued pork, whose moderate gumminess had me imagining there was grape or strawberry jelly in the sauce. The chicken, meanwhile, chopped with mushrooms & (probably) cabbage, made for a fresher savory contrast to the very slightly sweet bun.

SKchickenbun SKporkbun

Firm, cabbage-&-onion-juicy baked pork-vegetable bao appear below left; better still, on the right, are deep-fried, twist-tied pouch–shaped, wonton-like dumplings such as I’d never seen before. Shatteringly crunchy on the outside, each contained an entire fat shrimp, perfectly cooked. They came with mayo, which they hardly needed, but which I can hardly pretend I didn’t use—although I also dunked them, like doughnuts in coffee, into the broth for the wonton soup.

SKpanfriedporkbun SKfriedshrimpdumplings

No need, I presume, for a photo of the broth, which I actually didn’t care for in & of itself—too starchy—but the array of goodies to drop therein (below left) was lovely: not only squirting pork-&-shrimp wontons but whole shrimp, slices of barbecued pork (much better without the aforementioned sauce), chunks of steamed chicken, straw mushrooms, carrots & still-snappy sugar snap peas.

As for the “sizzling” beef rib with eggplant in black pepper sauce (right)—

SKwontons SKrib

of course it was no longer sizzling by the time I got to it, but I fear the sauce would’ve been on the gloppy, off-seasoned side (too much salt & sugar, not enough pepper) in any case; the rib, meanwhile, was rather chewy, but there was plenty of it, both on & off the bone, & the eggplant spears were just as I like them—glistening & silken.

And the best may be yet to come; the sweet-&-sour swills & blahs with blahcoli that dominate more compromising, Americanized repertoires are very few & far between on Star Kitchen’s menu, which instead features hot pots, clay pot rice casseroles, & major faves like salt & pepper shrimp in the shell & salty fish & chicken fried rice, making no bones along the way about its use of frog’s legs, duck’s tongue, tripe, lotus leaves, bamboo pith, bitter melon, sea cucumber & so on—as well it shouldn’t (though I do wish eel were an option). And who knows what secrets the “special late-dinner menu” may contain—but rest assured I’ll return soon to find out, hopefully to the tune of Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

*Take-out again, you ask, with a justifiable air of skepticism? Aren’t you distorting the dining experience, not to mention short-shrifting the food—risking its degradation over time & distance? Truthfully, yes. But even I couldn’t eat all that by myself, & the Director had films to screen here at home. No excuse, just a fact of our dinner-&-a-movie lifestyle.

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